From the Queen Mother to Everyday Canadians, Honouring the Fortitude of Women in Wartime
Women working on Second World War aircraft assembly. By doing war work on the civilian front, women freed men to join the Armed Forces. Photo: George Marks/Getty Images
To Hitler, she was the most dangerous woman in Europe.
Queen Elizabeth, the charming consort of King George VI (and mother of our current queen, Elizabeth II), had plenty of common sense, a sympathetic nature — and a backbone of steel. Her reaction to bomb damage at Buckingham Palace even garnered the admiration of Londoners who had lost homes, friends and family during Luftwaffe raids.
“I’m glad we’ve been bombed,” she commented. “It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.” (Because of its many wharfs and warehouses, that area was a particular target.) To Hitler’s chagrin, the Queen’s resolute stand boosted British morale.
She grasped the sacrifices women had made in the Great War (her own brother was killed in France in 1915) and were again facing in the Second World War. During a radio address to the women of the Empire in 1939, she noted that, “War has at all times called for the fortitude of women.”
Indeed, war turned life upside down in Canada. Nearly 5,000 military nurses would serve overseas, and more than 45,000 other women would join Canada’s armed forces during the mid-century conflict, to work as clerks, telephone operators, drivers or cooks, and eventually in non-traditional roles as mechanics or heavy equipment operators (and always at less pay than males).
By doing war work on the civilian front, women freed men to join the Armed Forces. While husbands, brothers and sons were away conducting the business of warfare, women like Veronica Foster were slogging it out in factories, producing war materiel. “Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl,” who did indeed make Bren guns, became Canada’s answer to America’s “Rosie the Riveter.”
While non-traditional, their work was valued by people in high places. Humphrey Mitchell, federal labour minister, commented, “I do not think we could win this war without the women.”
One ad that recruited women for the work force urged: “The humblest job in a home front service is as important as victory itself.” But in Edmonton, young Margaret Littlewood’s job wasn’t so mundane. A licensed (civilian) pilot instructor, she was a rare bird — teaching student RCAF pilots to fly in a Link Trainer, the flight simulator of the era.
Rural women, like Mrs. W.W. Roberts, of Woolford, southwest of Lethbridge, Alta., often added plowing, hauling grain and other farming chores to an already crushing list of jobs while nine of her sons were either in the military or doing war work.
More than ever, Canadians became savers — collecting fat that would make glycerine for explosives and bones for glue; empty shaving cream and toothpaste tubes for the tin; saving rubber and metal for the war effort, and scrimping to buy Victory Bonds.
There was always a way to contribute.
Peggy Tucker, a nurse at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, volunteered for the Red Cross, packing boxes to be sent to Canadians prisoners of war. Like many of her countrywomen, she also knitted wool socks for men in all three services.
Through the war’s five years, there was the constant worry about loved ones, and even fear that all would be in vain and the war lost. In fact, it is difficult to comprehend the global scale of the war. The world seemed larger than it seems now because travel and communication was more difficult.
During the Second World War, there was no television. Radio and newspapers delivered the news, while film of war events was shown at local movie theatres. Today, computers allow much closer contact with family and friends serving in areas of conflict, such as Afghanistan.
In 1939, Queen Elizabeth told the women of the Empire, “We, no less than men, have real and vital work to do — Be assured that in carrying on your home duties and meeting all these worries cheerfully, you are giving real service to your country.”
They, our mothers and grandmothers, aunts and neighbours, probably never thought of their contribution as having so much significance. They coped, welcomed their men home when war ended and grieved those who never returned. When we bow our heads for a minute of remembrance this Nov. 11 to honour the sacrifice of those who took part in the various wars of Canada’s history, include a prayer of thanks for the women who shared in that sacrifice.
A version of this story was originally published in 2019.